California’s Big Fracking Mess

Residents of the Los Angeles neighborhood of Topanga gather to watch Gasland 2, a documentary criticial of fracking, at the local community center.
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Oct. 15, 2013, 3:26 p.m.

LOS ANGELES — Cali­for­nia is al­most 3,000 miles away from where the anti-frack­ing doc­u­ment­ary Gasland gained its fame in Pennsylvania, but the fights play­ing out in the North­east are now mi­grat­ing west.

“This is a very im­port­ant movie about an ex­tremely im­port­ant is­sue that has come to a neigh­bor­hood near you,” Lance Sim­mens, state dir­ect­or of the Gasland Grass­roots group, told roughly 50 people who gathered in the af­flu­ent To­panga neigh­bor­hood on a re­cent Sat­urday night to watch the doc­u­ment­ary’s se­quel, Gasland 2.

Frack­ing, known of­fi­cially as hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing, is a drilling tech­no­logy that’s helped un­lock vast re­serves of oil and nat­ur­al gas throughout the coun­try, trapped deep un­der­ground in rock form­a­tions. But it has been cri­ti­cized for the en­vir­on­ment­al risks as­so­ci­ated with it.

Pennsylvania is ground zero for this fight, where res­id­ent Josh Fox made Gasland in 2010 about these risks, in­clud­ing con­cerns about wa­ter con­tam­in­a­tion. Fox’s film and the se­quel that HBO re­leased earli­er this year are now ex­port­ing the fight to the rest of the coun­try and the world.

In New York, Demo­crat­ic Gov. An­drew Cuomo is de­bat­ing wheth­er to green-light frack­ing amid a five-year morator­i­um. In Col­or­ado a statewide bal­lot ini­ti­at­ive to ban the prac­tice may come to a vote next year. Arkan­sas, Illinois, North Dakota, Ohio, and West Vir­gin­ia are ad­dress­ing frack­ing is­sues, and France up­held its frack­ing ban last week.

Now, the de­bate has ar­rived in Cali­for­nia, the state known around the world for its lead­er­ship on re­new­able en­ergy and cli­mate change. And while Demo­crat­ic Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill to reg­u­late frack­ing last month, some say the Golden State has hardly been out front.

“If you look at the reg­u­lat­ory ap­par­at­us in Sac­ra­mento, you can draw the con­clu­sion that they have not been mind­ing the store,” said Sim­mens, who worked for former Demo­crat­ic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell dur­ing that state’s frack­ing de­bate and ap­pears in Gasland 2.

It’s un­clear how much frack­ing is ac­tu­ally go­ing on in Cali­for­nia be­cause the state’s De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion is not cur­rently re­quired to track it, ac­cord­ing to Ed Wilson, spokes­man for the de­part­ment’s Di­vi­sion of Oil, Gas, and Geo­therm­al Re­sources. But the de­part­ment still reg­u­lates the prac­tice, says De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion Dir­ect­or Mark Necho­dom.

“It is a reg­u­lated activ­ity in the sense we reg­u­late all activ­it­ies that are done in the drilling and com­ple­tion of an oil and gas well,” Necho­dom said. “In Cali­for­nia, hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing has been used for 60 years and act­ively used for 40 years. And in Cali­for­nia there has not been one re­cord of re­por­ted dam­age [re­lated] dir­ectly to the use of hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing.”

Based on vol­un­tary re­port­ing re­quire­ments the de­part­ment put in place last year, Necho­dom es­tim­ates that “we might see around 650 hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing jobs a year.” He says his de­part­ment is­sues between 2,000 and 3,000 drilling per­mits a year. The frack­ing law and the at­tend­ant rules his agency is writ­ing will provide data that “will give us a lot more ac­cur­ate pic­ture of how much is go­ing on,” Necho­dom said.

So why is Cali­for­nia just be­gin­ning to col­lect data on frack­ing if it has been go­ing on for dec­ades? “Since we had not seen hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing as a high-risk activ­ity com­pared to oth­er things done in the oil patch, it was not re­por­ted,” Necho­dom said.

The frack­ing fight in Cali­for­nia is ramp­ing up be­cause of two con­ver­ging factors: grass­roots en­vir­on­ment­al groups ques­tion­ing the prac­tice, largely in re­sponse to the fear in­voked by the Gasland films, and the po­ten­tial de­vel­op­ment of the Monterey Shale form­a­tion in the San Joa­quin Val­ley.

“We have two-thirds of the known re­serves of oil shale de­pos­its in the United States, and we should sens­ibly be pro­du­cing that,” said Necho­dom, not­ing this has been Brown’s long-held po­s­i­tion. “It’s an enorm­ous op­por­tun­ity for the state to de­vel­op eco­nom­ic­ally, and he [Brown] has said it needs to be well-reg­u­lated.”

Still, many en­vir­on­ment­al­ists aren’t happy with the fi­nal it­er­a­tion of the frack­ing bill, say­ing that ma­jor oil and gas pro­du­cers in the state, chiefly Oc­ci­dent­al Pet­ro­leum and Chev­ron, lob­bied to en­sure it was stripped of any reg­u­lat­ory heft.

“We could not get a ban, we could not get a morator­i­um, so the op­tions for us as le­gis­lat­ors was do we leave it com­pletely un­reg­u­lated be­cause we can’t get a morator­i­um, or do we get what we can get,” said Demo­crat­ic state Sen. Mark Leno, who rep­res­ents San Fran­cisco and helped write the bill. “What we got are the strongest reg­u­la­tions and dis­clos­ure re­quire­ments on the oil in­dustry of any state in the coun­try. That’s a suc­cess.”

The law re­quires dis­clos­ure of chem­ic­als used in frack­ing, where com­pan­ies in­ject more than a mil­lion gal­lons of wa­ter, chem­ic­als, and sand in­to rocks to re­lease trapped oil and nat­ur­al gas. It also reg­u­lates a well-stim­u­la­tion tech­nique known among en­vir­on­ment­al­ists as “acid­iz­ing,” which uses po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous acids to clean the well or cre­ate a path­way for fuels.

In urb­an areas around Los Angeles, Necho­dom’s de­part­ment es­tim­ates that roughly 70 out of about 9,000 wells have been fracked. But the de­bate sparked by Gasland and act­iv­ists like Sim­mens is still catch­ing hold. In the South­east neigh­bor­hood of Whit­ti­er, which just agreed to al­low drilling on a nature pre­serve, the con­di­tion­al per­mit spe­cific­ally out­lawed frack­ing, even though the com­pany nev­er had plans to do so. In the south­west­ern sub­urb of Bald­win Hills, where a com­pany re­cently com­pleted a study on frack­ing that found no en­vir­on­ment­al or pub­lic health harm, res­id­ents are still frus­trated com­pan­ies aren’t more trans­par­ent.

“If frack­ing is good, but you’re not will­ing to dis­close, it’s not giv­ing you the be­ne­fit of the doubt,” said Irma R. Muñoz, a Bald­win Hills res­id­ent and pres­id­ent of Mujeres de la Tierra, an en­vir­on­ment­al group. “It means you’re try­ing to hide something. You can’t have it both ways.”

Above all else, frack­ing has evolved to rep­res­ent much more than a drilling tech­nique. It’s be­come a sym­bol of choice: You either sup­port fossil fuels, or you don’t. And in the state where ac­tion on cli­mate change is the norm, this choice rings loudly.

“As you’re watch­ing this and you’re grit­ting your teeth and clench­ing your fists, re­mem­ber this needs to be used as a con­struct­ive force go­ing for­ward,” Sim­mens said be­fore the Gasland 2 show­ing in To­panga. “So we can do what we need to do to draw at­ten­tion to the in­cred­ibly im­port­ant ques­tions that need to be asked and answered.”

Get­ting riled up, he spoke more force­fully: “The right ques­tion is should we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. If you don’t ask that ques­tion you give the politi­cians and the gov­ern­ment and the in­sti­tu­tions, which es­sen­tially run our pub­lic policy, a free pass.”

The group of 50 clapped loudly. And Sim­mens headed out to do the same thing all over the next day in Ven­tura County.

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